When acting isn’t

I saw the Golden Globes the other night, one of the many award shows this season that will have me glued to the tube. I was sitting there, spellbound, even though I never believe art ought to be a contest. Who is the best is not only impossible to decide, it is pointless. How can you say Casey Affleck had a better performance than Denzel Washington? You can’t. It is only a different performance, each affective in different ways.  The point is, I was affected by both performances, which is what they were supposed to do. Affect me.

So how does a group of people decide on the “best?” Much depends on who is doing the watching and the voting. It could have all come down to: which character and story you liked better, whose career needs a boost, what the temper of the times is, how to divide the awards among the artists so they will want to do more, and so on. In other words, there is no “best” performance. There are only performances that are noteworthy and effective.

So if you were going to assess an acting performance, what do you base it on? There lots of answers, and many of them have to do with emotional range and how technique is used to bring the character to emotional life. In other words, what did they do to bring life to the performance?

This year’s Golden Globes had many great acting performances. I could go on about all the things, the techniques, the raw emotions displayed by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, playing off each other, etc. Marvelous performances, enriched by how movement, bodily attitudes, gestures, facial expressions, etc. were used. The performances amounted to a master class in ensemble acting. Anyone could benefit seeing what these two were able to do.

Yet two other performances also stood out for me, not by what the actors did, but by what they didn’t do.

Casey Affleck, I suppose an actor whose time has come, won for the movie, Manchester by the Sea. Claire Foy won for her performance in the Netflix series, The Crown, playing a young Queen Elizabeth II.

They are marvelous, Affleck and Foy, in completely different vehicles, but their performances are hard to talk about. In both cases, we need to see and understand just how profoundly both characters, in different ways, are affected by what happens to them. In both cases, that something goes way beyond drawing on what acting classes taught. Both actors show profound emotion and thought processes without a lot of externals. Changes are happening internally and that makes it almost scary to watch. We see what these characters are made of and who they really are, not by what they do, but by what they don’t do.

Both actors internalized their characters and because there is a camera involved, an instrument that can pick up the tiniest movements. Even an eye flicker becomes a subtle way to let us know the character has just been dinged by circumstances. So Affleck can let us know by just looking away for a moment, that his character, a man already destroyed beyond any redemption, can still feel and that he can feel, puzzles him.

And Foy, by taking a deeper breath but keeping her body and eyes steady, shows us a monumental moment in which Elizabeth is no longer a proper wife and mother, but in that moment, had become queen of England.

Queen. She keeps steady, a little straightening of her shoulders, her eyes flick away for an instant in a glimmer of fear, and then eyes back and steady. This woman had changed in seconds and in ways us regular folk can only guess at. Yet we didn’t have to imagine, because Foy held us spellbound as we vividly knew, through that breath, that flicker of the eyes, just how much this young woman had changed. Just moments ago, she had to take in the loss of her dear father. He was king. And now, she must be queen. No breaking down, not for Foy’s Elizabeth. No flying out of control, no screaming about how it is not fair to ask her to give up her life. With a slightly elevated breath, her eyes open a little wider, she lets us know that henceforth, she will do her duty bravely and elegantly, and do it because this is what she was meant to do. It is no longer about Elizabeth the young woman and mother. It is about Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, and her duty to her people. There is no winning here. No grabbing at the gold ring. No Tweeting. There is only duty and breeding, qualities that manifest themselves quietly.

What Claire Foy didn’t do, in her pivotal moment, is to shudder, grab hold of her husband’s hand to steady herself, sit because she was so overwhelmed she had to keep from falling over. She didn’t reach for a handkerchief and dab her eyes to show her grief at the loss of her father or twist it to show her apprehension at suddenly being the queen of England.

What she did do, by not doing anything big, was to let us in on Elizabeth’s secret strength and her dedication to duty. We understood the woman and the queen in that, and so many other, moments of non-acting, and Claire Foy will forever be associated with this remarkable woman, Elizabeth II, Queen of England.

Yep, sometimes less is more.

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